Emily Cheney Neville Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Emily Cheney Neville 1919–

American novelist and journalist. Neville was one of the first young adult writers to choose settings other than the affluent suburbs or bucolic countryside and characters other than fair-haired kids with creamy complexions and perfect orthodontia. Her first novel accepted for publication, It's Like This, Cat, is a sensitive, low-keyed look at an ordinary teenage boy in New York City. Directed especially to a male readership, it was unusual for its accurate rendering of teenage dialogue and slang and was praised for its perceptive representation of the feelings of an average teenager towards his family and everyday life. Neville wrote the book as a change from the standard boy-and-dog stories of her youth, and as a reaction against her childhood hatred of cats. It was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1964. Neville grew up in a situation quite different from any of her own somewhat urbane characters. She came from a large, closeknit family in a small town, and had only her cousins as companions until the age of eleven. Her bittersweet autobiographical novel, Traveler from a Small Kingdom, describes her discovery of the outside world. Neville's understanding of the importance of being accepted in society has come through strongly in her works, due perhaps to her own experience. The Seventeenth Street Gang describes a group of urban children dealing with acceptance and rejection, and presents an analysis of some of the internal problems within a group mentality. Neville has brought a strong sense of social justice to her books, and has recently begun a career as a lawyer. Her Berries Goodman has as its theme the dawning of the existence of prejudice on a boy in a suburban environment. Neville has consistently refused to sugar-coat the incidents she describes in her works, and has been criticized for her unsubtlety, as well as her creation of stereotyped characters. She claims that "the real world … is so much more beautiful than a rigid world of good and bad. It is also more confusing. I think the teenage reader is ready for both." She admits her characters are "somewhat fragmentary," since she lets her dialogue define them. Although some of this dialogue sounds somewhat dated today, the situations she describes for her characters are representative of the universal teenage experience. Her mission as an author, Neville states, "is to show the reader, not how great a hero he could become, because I don't think most people are going to become heroes, but simply how hard it is to be a plain decent human being." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)